Monday, August 25, 2008

Linguists and regular people (2)

Today, I attended my first class in Tahitian.

Really.

I can talk about the reasons for this later, but what I noticed was how differently I think of things now than the me of 4 years ago did. You see, the first name of our prof is "Jack" in English, which becomes Tihati in Tahitian. You can say "tee ha tee", but the informal way to speak the word is just "chat" or "chati", which sounds a lot more like the word Jack. Focusing, just on the first part, notice how the three sounds of "t" "ee" and "h" just became "ch", which is really the same as a sequence of "t" and "sh".

A normal person looks at this and thinks, "huh, weird." Or perhaps they think, "oh, it becomes 'ch'." I, however, apparently now think:

"Cool, the voiceless glottal fricative becomes palatalized with the high front vowel. Well, maybe it's more accurate to say that the "h" triggers spirantization in the high vowel. I wonder how widespread this is? I bet it only happens with "ee" and that "ee" is the epenthetic vowel in this language, since it's already showing signs of vowel reduction."

What all that means is: The "ee" sound and the "h" sound are merging in some way. You could think of it either as the noisy [h] sound being pronounced in the location of the vowel, or you could think of it as the [ee] staying in the same place, but sounding a little more white noisy like the original [h]. I'm also guessing that "ee" is sort of the basic vowel in the language and that it gets stuck into words when consonants occur next to each other in a way that the language doesn't allow.** Also, the same vowel seems to have a tendency not to be pronounced strongly, since it's both merging with [h] in the first syllable and not being pronounced very strongly in the last syllable."

Or it becomes "ch".

Don't you now wish you had become a linguist in order to have such conversations with yourself?

**Schwa is the basic vowel of English. It has a tendency to be just dropped from words when you aren't pronouncing things carefully. Also, we stick schwa in to break things up that we don't like pronouncing. The name nguyen often becomes [n schwa g] in an English speaker's hands because we don't know what to do with n and g together in one syllable. Or the English speaker's mouth as it were.

3 comments:

bunnygirl said...

We have a lot of Vietnamese here in Houston and Nguyen is a very common surname. Most non-Vietnamese pronounce it "win," which is pretty close.

You've probably already seen this, but just in case: Futurese. I found it interesting, although it doesn't factor in the influence that Spanish and perhaps other languages will have on English.

writtenwyrdd said...

This is fascinating stuff.

Hope you are getting through the workload successfully.

Sarah Laurenson said...

I was thoroughly intrigued til I had to think to follow what you were saying. Hard to do in the morning. Cool stuff!